In December 2009, when the recession was beginning to really create job losses that were devastating large numbers of families in this country, I wrote a post titled, "Would You Trade Details of Your Private Life for Job Security?" The idea was to encourage people to consider the pursuit of jobs that require a security clearance as a means of gaining employment along a stable career path.
Here we are nearly two years later, and the employment situation for many seems just as hopeless now as it did then. No doubt, going the security-clearance route presents great opportunities, but it's hardly an easy path to tread. A goal that would be more broadly and readily attainable, and that warrants serious consideration for many people who might not have given it much thought, is employment with the federal government in a position that doesn't necessarily require a security clearance.
I spoke last week with Laurence Shatkin, a career information analyst and author whose most recent book is "150 Best Federal Jobs." For starters, he said one of the fastest-growing jobs in the federal government is computer and information research scientist:
It's fast-growing, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's from a large base. Over the next 10 years, it's expected to grow at a rate of around 20 percent. There aren't that many of them, so that means there aren't going to be a whole lot of job openings. But if you have that particular set of skills, there could be opportunities there. It really means you have to understand these things on a theoretical basis-it's about information theory, as opposed to being able to write code. It means pushing the envelope of what's being done with computers.
I asked Shatkin if he had any tips that might give you a leg up on the competition. He said education is key:
Federal workers tend to be more highly educated than workers in the general population-education credentials will count for a lot when you're applying for these jobs. Another thing to remember is that these jobs certainly aren't all in Washington. They're in many different parts of the country, and sometimes you may have a leg up by being willing to move to a part of the country where there's not a lot of competition. On fedjobs.gov, the website where you can search a database of federal jobs, you can specify geographical area.
And if you were to encounter it, your mechanisms for appealing on the basis of discrimination will be stronger than they are in the private sector. The federal government is held to a lot of scrutiny for complying with non-discrimination laws. So yes, your chances of avoiding age discrimination would be better. I know in the IT field that can be a real problem. There's often the assumption that the younger person is somehow more knowledgeable about the latest technologies.
As for the downsides to working for the federal government, Shatkin cited bureaucracy and pay:
I've known some federal workers, and I find that what tends to get to them after a while is the amount of bureaucracy that's involved. Although there are a lot of good regulations, for example anti-discrimination regulations, they discover that there are people who are manipulating the system in various ways, and that can be a source of dissatisfaction. Another thing is that for the level of education you bring to the job, the pay tends to be less than it is in the private sector. Of course there is more security, and the benefits tend to be better.
Since Shatkin has spent 30 years examining career issues, I also wanted get his views on the debate over whether there's a shortage of people with the particular IT skills that are needed in this country. I noted that some say there's a shortage so we need to have more foreign workers on H-1B visas, while others say we have a glut of skilled IT people who can't find jobs. I asked him which side of that debate he comes down on. His response:
I don't come down on either side of that debate, because I think there is some truth on both sides of that. I think there is a shortage of people who have these skills, but there's a surplus of people who have the ability and the native talent to learn these skills if they would only get the chance to do that. If companies were retraining workers, if they were supporting their training so that they could keep up with the latest developments in technology, we have all the people we need. There are any number of unemployed IT people in their 50s and even 60s who could fill that need but aren't, because companies would rather hire someone from abroad who can come in cheaper and have the skills already. It's like how there's oil underground here that we're not even tapping. Instead, we're bringing it in from Saudi Arabia. All we'd have to do is drill, and it's right there. But they don't want to spend the money to do that.